“I love this country; I feel like I am apart of it…I feel like this is my country.”
Leonel became a citizen of the United States in 1981. He first arrived on June 11, 1970, from Honduras; he was just 16 years old. Although he was young and in school, Leonel had already been working for a while; he was a messenger for a successful architect that managed projects both in Honduras and in the United States.
Knowing that his sister was already living in the U.S., the architect suggested that Leonel go and join her. He assured Leonel that with his connections, he could help in securing all the necessary documentation that would be needed. Twenty-five dollars and a very short time later, Leonel had a proper visa and was living with his sister in Brooklyn, NY.
Coming from such a poor country, it was immediately clear to Leonel that he had arrived in a place of vast opportunity. He tells me he remembers walking around Brooklyn when he was young and seeing factory after factory. “There were a lot of good jobs, a lot of opportunity to be had here,” he recalls.
Besides the seemingly unparalleled potential for a more prosperous life, Leonel recognized little else about the land he had come to think he knew through television and movies. “Before I got here, I thought there was only white people,” he chuckled. “I thought there was only white people and they all had swimming pools up on the roof.” It was as if Hollywood had been hiding any and all diversity from the rest of the world; “white” was what would be seen and coveted. Leonel was shocked when he got to Brooklyn and saw brown everywhere. “I saw so many blacks and Puerto Ricans, it was just amazing because I had no idea,” he said, still smiling.
This grin narrowed though as he began to tell me about the racism he saw amongst all of the diversity. “I never knew about racism until I came here–we don’t believe in those things,” he shared, quite matter of factly. I listened with surprise, thinking a lack of racial discrimination in Honduras must just be due to a lack of variety in skin tones. “Oh no,” Leonel assured me, “My godfather is a black man–there are all types of people all over.”
“In Honduras, I can eat from your plate, or you can eat from my plate–we don’t have those fears like here.”
I appreciated how simply he pegged the root of racism and hate; it all comes back to fear. Fear of not having enough, fear of not getting what’s wanted or needed. I started to wonder where this line of thinking was born–that there cannot possibly be enough for everyone to share; it seems a sick instinct we must reverse–that we may only choose to dominate or be dominated.
Leonel said he never understood the hostility towards immigrants and people of different races–as if only one race belonged on the land they had all settled on. He heard accents all around him every day–from every direction. “The [white people] too, they are coming from somewhere else, or at least their parents are,” he says shaking his head; “we are all immigrants.”
Despite witnessing such rampant inequality, Leonel grew to love the U.S. and has maintained a strong sense of pride in being a citizen. He eventually joined a union and has been working as a doorman for more than a couple of decades. He says he has been blessed and knows he could not have had the same life back in Honduras.
People are now actually fleeing his home country in record high numbers; the corruption and violence make it impossible to build any type of stability there. “The situation in the whole country is terrible,” Leonel told me. “If you try and open up a business, they come and tell you a percentage you have to give them–people cannot meet demands, so they flee.” People flee knowing that those who do not pay- most often do eventually with their lives; murder is rampant in Honduras. Unfortunately for Leonel, he knows this firsthand.
I sat down with him about a month after he returned from burying his younger brother, Antonio; he was killed on August 17th, coming out of a bank. “He went to deposit some money I sent him for medication, because he has diabetes,” Leonel told me. “They thought he was there to take money out so when he came out of the bank, three guys asked him for his money.” Their sister, Martha, was waiting for him in a taxi; she had asked the driver to accompany her brother into the bank, which he agreed to do for a small fee. He was gunned down, along with Antonio, for nothing. Martha watched in horror from the taxi.
“Sometimes at least you wish someone would pay for what they did, you wish for some type of justice, some type of dignity for your family.”
Leonel knows there will be no justice for Antonio; he is sure there will not even be an attempt at an investigation. “The police are corrupt, everyone is corrupt–even the president,” he told me, exhausted. He is the first to understand why so many are taking desperate measures to leave; it has become an intolerable situation.
Still, and surprising to me, Leonel does not think refugees from Honduras or anywhere else should be accepted in the U.S. “I think we already have enough people here,” he explained–I listened in disbelief. “Right now, there are no jobs–the factory jobs that existed are gone, there is nothing now.” Leonel explained that he did not feel we should be welcoming in more people when we do not have enough to offer those already here.
I thought all immigrants were pro-immigration. My depth of surprise in listening to Leonel made me realize how narrow my lens was on this subject–and probably others. As he spoke I grew more and more judgmental; I thought, “how can you think like this?” I disagreed with almost everything he was saying. In my mind, if someone is not safe and they are willing to risk their lives and give up everything they know to find their way to safety, I say, let them come. If once they have arrived, they are willing to fight tooth and nail to survive–willing to take any job and do whatever it takes to make a life for themselves and their family, I say let them stay.
After we spoke, all the comments of Leonel’s I was silently shaking my head at were now reverberating in my head while on the treadmill and on my way to work. It took a bit of distance from our conversation for me to realize how simple and uncomplicated it was for me to arrive at the opinions above. My perspective is one of privilege, and while encouragingly optimistic-it may not be grounded in the realism the subject may require.
I work freelance, which means when one job ends, I may not necessarily have something else lined up to start right away. Even so, I know that I will work; i don’t doubt this even if it takes a bit of time before the next gig comes along. When I first moved to New York, there was more fear. It took me a while to find work with any consistency; in fact it took me over a year to be able to completely support myself. Despite this, I quit a job after working for one day. About 2 months into living here, I went to work in a restaurant and left at the end of the day knowing I was never going back there. I had worked in restaurants since I was 14–that one day was all I needed to know that I was done with that phase of my life, permanently.
I was able to walk out of that job and get by on stringing together inconsistent work that didn’t amount to my monthly expenses because I had the support of my sister. Of course I felt stress and guilt having to repeatedly borrow money from her–but the point is, that support was there. I feared I was going to fail and have to move back to my hometown. I feared I didn’t have what it took to support myself in a big city. However, I never feared that I wasn’t going to have a roof over my head; I never feared that I was not going to have enough food to eat.
It is quite easy for me coming from my experience to say “If you work hard enough, you can make it here.” One is more apt to jump if there is a safety net below. Leonel forced me to recognize that there is no safety net for these immigrants and refugees, and that is a huge deal. We cannot agree to take people in if we cannot also offer a means for them to support themselves and become productive members of our communities.
Still, I disagree with Leonel’s thoughts on immigration; I do think we should take people who are fleeing catastrophic situations–especially ones which we have created or contributed to. I think if we do not, then we are operating under the same attitude that breeds discrimination and intolerance –we are operating under a state of fear.
I think the government has to create stronger incentives for companies to create jobs here and not outsource them overseas. I also think if collectively more companies were willing to take a financial hit in the short-term by creating opportunities here, our economy would prosper and so would their long-term bottom lines. It is not enough to have small local businesses operating in this manner; it needs to extend to the larger corporations.
People are ridiculously supporting Donald Trump because he pushes their fear button; they believe immigrants are coming in and taking their jobs–dwindling their resources. They don’t realize their jobs and resources are being sent to China. We can’t recoil in fear by closing our borders and trying to hang on to what we can. We have to be brave and innovative and open in order to allow our country to grow–in order to keep America great.
I have to continue to grow as well, which is why I have to sit down with more people like Leonel. If I only surround myself with people who think like I do, I cannot maintain much strength in my convictions. If I have not opened my mind to the other side of the argument, my lack of knowledge, understanding, and compassion weakens my own stance.
Leonel travels frequently; he has been all over Europe and the United States. Although we disagree on a lot of issues, a passion for travel is where we connect. He told me traveling is like reading–they are both opportunities to open up your mind. “I have a desire to learn, that is why i travel,” he told me, proudly. “When you travel, and you go into a museum, you might go in ignorant, but you can come out rich,” he explained.
That is what I think of now, every time I leave my building in the morning and wave goodbye to Leonel. I sat down with him, I listened, and I most definitely came out, a little bit richer.